Private-Sector US Transportation System is World’s Best

There is a magazine called TRAINS which covers modern American freight railroads, passenger trains, foreign railroads, locomotive technology, signaling systems, US railroad history etc., every possible subject. TRAINS covers private-sector American freight railroads well but is constantly banging the drum for inter-city Amtrak service and for commuter railroads, trolleys and other ‘light rail’ systems within our cities even though all of these taxpayer-subsidized passenger systems are enormously costly and inefficient.

Every issue of TRAINS has at least one column or one article about federally-funded Amtrak and at least one picture. Sometimes there are several articles about Amtrak, even a cover story, and lots of pictures. Yet Amtrak is a Big Loser. Overall Amtrak wastes vast sums of taxpayer money and energy too, and offers lousy service on antiquated equipment. Just ask anyone about their experience if they have used Amtrak recently. Even TRAINS admits regularly that Amtrak is a shabby outfit.

TRAINS says that Amtrak makes a profit on one part of its nationwide system, on its busy Northeast Corridor from Boston to New York to Washington, DC. The reason is because that’s where captive, upper-income, urban riders are heavily concentrated and are willing to pay high prices for relatively short-distance (200 miles) Amtrak service that cannot be logistically well-served by air. Many of these riders also are urban liberals who support Amtrak politically.

Meanwhile intercity buses like Greyhound carry one-and-a-half times as many travelers in that same Northeast Corridor on modern equipment at much lower cost than Amtrak, sometimes just 25% of an Amtrak ticket. But you would never know about the buses from the way the media slobber all over Amtrak while ignoring the buses, which take zero taxpayer dollars.

Still Amtrak is absorbing $1.5 billion a year in federal subsidy because the non-Northeast-Corridor part of Amtrak – 95% of the system, including long cross-country routes – loses fistfuls of money and guzzles astronomical amounts of fuel. Here is an example why:

In November 2013 an Amtrak train called the Southern Crescent was traveling from New Orleans to New York City. It had 207 passengers on board. The train had two locomotives and nine passenger cars. The total weight combined of those locomotives and those passenger cars, without the passengers, is more than 1,000 tons or 5 tons per passenger. knows this from extensive study of railroads. These are common numbers for long-haul Amtrak trains. On average Amtrak carries low passenger loads.

At the same time a Boeing 737 could carry 207 passengers but only weighs 60 tons empty, or one-third of a ton per passenger. So how does an Amtrak train weighing 17 times as much as a Boeing 737 “save energy” moving those passengers, as environmentalists and Democrats claim over and over that Amtrak “saves energy”? It does not. It is another socialist fake job. Those passengers would save a large amount of fuel by flying, while the airplane also saves huge amounts of money because it does not have to pay all of the on-board crews (11 per shift on the Amtrak train, for 4 shifts) that the train needs in its 1,200 mile journey. Air passengers even would save money on the food that they would need to consume on the long rail journey (scheduled 30 hours for the most direct train, or 4 full meals).

Meanwhile the 737 goes 10 times faster than the Amtrak schedule says that the train goes, and even faster than the train actually travels considering the terrible on-time record of long-distance Amtrak trains which routinely run 6 or 8 hours late or even more. Nationwide, Amtrak also interferes on hundreds of occasions every day with all of the major US freight railroads on whose tracks it runs, while regular Amtrak derailments cause even more problems for our freight system.

One copy of TRAINS magazine featured a big banner headline on the cover asking, ‘Can US high-speed rail catch up to the rest of the world?’ These passenger-train fanatics have been talking this up frantically for 40 years since Amtrak was started. And we are supposed to hang our heads in shame that the United States has this decrepit Amtrak system when Japan has Bullet Trains and France has the TGV high-speed express.

Friends, don’t be deceived. America has the best transportation system in the world in four ways. These are all PRIVATE-SECTOR systems:

*We drive our cars, which is the most efficient means of travel. Most intercity travel in the US is by car. This is also true even in Europe. In a car you go directly from Point A to Point B and you don’t have to pay lots of extra money for additional tickets for passengers beyond the driver. You can also haul lots of luggage and other items in a car. Meanwhile public transit systems like Amtrak often make you go to Points C and D in between, adding many miles and wasting time and energy. Cars rule. They are the best way to get around.
*We fly from coast to coast in six hours rather than spending three days on a train. Our private-sector airline industry sells about 750 million tickets per year, while government-subsidized Amtrak sold 31 million tickets in 2013, and several million of those tickets were sold to people who simply wanted to go for a train ride. Publications like TRAINS constantly promote Amtrak as a vacation ride, and Amtrak sells itself relentlessly as a tourist train, but that is no reason to sustain this inefficient system with large amounts of taxpayer money.
*America has the most efficient railroad system in the world. It carries freight and moves almost 2 TRILLION ton-miles of freight annually. It is the backbone of our commercial transportation system and is the envy of the world. It dwarfs the passenger train systems of any other nation. The four major US freight railroads are CSX and NorfolkSouthern in the East, and Union Pacific and BNSF Railway in the West. They carry the bulk of our coal, steel, grain, lumber, new autos, auto parts, food products, consumer products, chemicals and, increasingly, crude oil along with other commodities and products. This system has 140,000 miles of track, 1.5 million freight cars, 24,000 locomotives, operates in the private sector and makes a profit, takes in gross revenues of about $55 billion a year, and takes only very small and rare government subsidies and only when special conditions apply that offer direct benefits to the public.
*We use intercity buses (Greyhound, Trailways, Peter Pan etc.) which carry many more passengers than Amtrak, take no taxpayer subsidy, are vastly more fuel-efficient than Amtrak, are much cheaper than Amtrak, and serve many hundreds more cities and towns than Amtrak does. In other words buses serve us “common folks” much better than Amtrak does while actually making a profit and holding to their schedules much better than Amtrak does.

But none of this stops the loons from demanding over and over and over that we continue funding Amtrak, and that we need to create a high-speed, heavily-subsidized Euro-type rail system here in the US. We don’t. Most of Amtrak should be shut down and its profitable Northeast Corridor should be sold to private operators, who will make it much more efficient.

The loons persist, however. In California a proposed high-speed train is projected to cost $68 billion to move people between Los Angeles and San Francisco. The only problem is that the proposed train route is 520 miles in order to serve out-of-the-way population centers while the direct distance by highway between the two cities is 382 miles and the direct distance by air is 350 miles.

So why should the state of California spend all that taxpayer cash – and rest assured that it will end up being several times more because of corruption – to cover all of that extra distance? It should not. It would be a huge waste of both money and energy to build such a boondoggle. Yet environmentalists and socialists still want it. And not because it will move people efficiently, but because it will create another massive bureaucracy that will give the Democrat party more power.

Regarding the amazing US private-sector freight railroad system, the federal government ruined it over many decades in three significant ways:

*by setting the shipping rates that could be charged, which alone was enough to destroy the railroads. Even George Washington warned that government should never set wages or prices for private business. The government even was dictating that a railroad could not give a discount for hauling 100 freight cars from a single shipper, but had to charge the same as one car times 100. This is totally against common-sense economics;
*by requiring that the freight railroads keep running their passenger trains even though few people were riding them and they were losing boatloads of money for many decades, and obstructing the freight trains, too; and
*by requiring that only the government could decide if money-losing branch lines could be abandoned or sold off, often taking years to make a decision.
*and to make things vastly worse, the labor unions, which were allied with the government, had a stranglehold on the freight railroads with their outrageous wage demands, work rules and strikes. Unions might have had up to 5 or 6 crew members, all at inflated salaries, on a train that today can be run with just one person in the locomotive – the “engineer” – also known as the train driver, although most US freight trains run with two people. Meanwhile constant strikes and labor actions destroyed many railroads, both large and small.

By 1980 much of the American freight railroad system had fallen apart because it was losing so much money that it could not afford to keep up its tracks nor its locomotives. Political leaders knew that something had to be done – either nationalization or deregulation. Fortunately in 1980 the federal Staggers Act deregulated the freight railroads and got the government and the labor unions out of the railroad business. Today the freight railroads are flourishing and making profits with the latest in modern track systems, efficient locomotives, state-of-the-art signals, computerized traffic control and car-tracking systems, and much more.

With the labor unions restrained in the private sector, however, they have moved into another area of train service. They are fighting to keep Amtrak afloat, which gives them plush paychecks, benefits and pensions; and they are advocating the expansion of passenger train service all over America, including ‘high-speed’ rail between cities and “light rail” services within our cities. They want these systems because passenger-rail services lose money and are government-subsidized, and are union-controlled since public-employee unions operate, maintain and manage these systems.

For instance the so-called Talgo passenger train service in the Pacific Northwest traveling between Vancouver, BC, Canada and going straight south 430 miles to Eugene, Oregon with major stops in Seattle and Portland, now commands more than $40 million per year of Oregon/Washington state taxpayer subsidy. Yet it only carries about 820,000 passengers per year, or an average of 2,300 passengers per day.

Those passengers could be moved on just 50 intercity Trailways buses (45 passengers per bus) on the Interstate at zero cost to the taxpayer, and would use about 7% as much fuel as Talgo trains which can weigh more than 15 times as much per passenger as a bus. Because trains are very heavy. To visualize this small passenger load, you can imagine that over a standard 18 hours of operation, from 6 AM to midnight, that those 50 buses would mean that less than three buses per hour would be traveling over 860 miles of road (the combined distance of the route both north and south).

This Talgo train uses the tracks of the freight-hauling BNSF Railway, interfering with and slowing down BNSF trains. This harms the general economy in that region because the freight railroads are crucial to keeping goods flowing. Then Talgo is burning up $800 million (that’s eight-hundred million dollars) in a taxpayer-funded capital campaign. For what? After all Talgo does not even maintain its own track or signals.

This $800 million is largely a gold-plated political payout for expensive stations and other amenities. For 2,300 passengers a day over 430 miles. Amazing. See how grossly inefficient it is when you get into the actual numbers? Meanwhile the Portland, Oregon trolley system is said to carry 16,000 passengers a day over just 8 miles.

But since Talgo is a “European” type passenger train the socialists love it because it is spending taxpayer money and making socialists happy and giving them power and jobs. Here are three other examples of how our railroads operate, either badly or well:

*In an article in the December 2013 issue of TRAINS magazine, one commentator talked glowingly about taking a vacation ride on Amtrak. He discussed a Seattle-to-Chicago ticket for two people with a roomette. The price was a whopping $2,053 for a one-way train ticket for two people on a train that takes two days (food not included) and is virtually always hours late in arriving. Yet you could fly it in 4 hours for a few hundred dollars for each person. You could drive it on $200 for gasoline plus one or two nights in motels. But when a government-subsidized service gouges you for its service, the socialists cheer. Because socialism always punishes efficiency and rewards inefficiency.

*On the other hand a project called the Colton Flyover in Colton, California (part of Los Angeles) now carries one heavily-used freight railroad track (Union Pacific) on a bridge over another heavily-used freight track (BNSF Railway). For decades there were huge bottlenecks at the ground-level crossing which can see more than 100 trains a day, many waiting long periods to cross. The Flyover project was expected to cost $202 million but ended up at $93 million. It was completed ahead of schedule. This project was successful because the freight railroads are efficient, private firms and they get things done. Because they need to keep the trains moving efficiently to serve the common good.

*BNSF needed to double-track one short stretch of its 2,200 mile transcontinental freight route through a place called Abo Canyon, New Mexico. Abo is not a picturesque canyon with priceless scenery; it is just a low spot among hills in the desert. Abo Canyon’s single track had been a choke point for decades for BNSF freight trains, slowing the whole route since it is double-tracked on both the eastern and western approaches to the canyon. Trains often waited for an hour or more to get through. BNSF efficiently installed the second track in a two-and-a-half year, 5-mile project completed in 2011 for $85 million, and all trains now run smoothly through Abo in both directions. But environmentalists tried their best to stop the project… the same environmentalists who embrace these inefficient and expensive passenger trains.

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